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One accident not enough to condemn oil transport
Every fatal accident is a terrible tragedy, prompting searching questions about how it could have happened and whether more could have been done to prevent the loss of life.
The fireball that engulfed the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic after a runaway train derailed and exploded in the middle of the night is already stirring a debate about the safety of shipping crude oil and petroleum products by rail.
After every major incident, investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Chemical Safety Board, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and their equivalents abroad conduct investigations and make recommendations to prevent another future disaster.
The history of industrial safety is largely measured by a series of catastrophic accidents, each of which sparked a major investigation and inspired improvements that have made transport and workplaces less hazardous in future.
“The deadly train derailment in Quebec this weekend is set to bring intense scrutiny to the dramatic growth in North America of shipping crude oil by rail, a century old practice unexpectedly revived by the surge in shale production,” Reuters reported on Sunday.
At least five people were killed on Sunday and another 40 were missing after the train carrying North Dakota crude, one of 10 such shipments per month, exploded in the town centre.
“The frequency of the number of incidents that have occurred raises legitimate questions that the industry and government need to look at,” according to Jim Hall, a former chairman of the NTSB, the U.S. agency charged with finding the cause of accidents and recommending safety improvements.
“The issue here is: are they expanding too rapidly?” Hall added.
The New York Times asked: “Is it safer and less environmentally destructive to move huge quantities of crude oil by train or by pipeline?” (“Deadly derailment in Quebec underlines oil debate” July 7).
Supporters of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline are poised to cite the accident as a reason to speed its approval, claiming pipelines have a better safety record than trains.
Environmental groups, which have strongly opposed Keystone, are no more enthusiastic about rail and see little difference between the two modes of transportation. Their preference is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels to cut all such incidents.
But it would be counter-productive to over-generalize from a single accident to conclude that crude-by-rail is not safe.
Oil Industry Spills
Notwithstanding occasional high-profile spills, the oil industry has a fairly good safety record. Roughly 90 million barrels of crude and refined products are consumed every day worldwide. Almost all of it is produced, transported, refined and used safely. The quantity spilled or involved in other accidents is tiny.
Just 8 million tonnes (1 tonne = 1.102 tons) of crude and products have been spilled in the 100 largest disasters since 1960, less than half of one day’s global production and consumption, according to Merv Fingas, an expert on environmental cleanup and former chief of Environment Canada’s Environment Emergencies Technology Center (“The basics of oil spill cleanup” 2013).
BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster may have spilled 500,000 tonnes into the Gulf of Mexico, but it is not typical. In fact, there are 12 spills of more than 4,000 liters of crude or refined products recorded on average every day in Canada, and about 100 in the United States, according to Fingas. Most of them are fairly small and go unremarked in the media.
“Human error, directly or indirectly, causes 30 to 50 percent of oil spills; equipment failure or malfunction causes 20 percent to 40 percent,” Fingas explains.
Pipelines & Rails
Transporting crude by pipeline is probably safer than sending it via rail, but both modes of transport have a good safety record.
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